Maid in America: Poverty and Invisibility
Stephanie Land recounts her life as a poor, white, single mother on welfare in her memoir Maid.
Land became a mother in her early twenties, and after leaving her daughter's father due to his increasingly violent and abusive behavior, she was forced to flee to a homeless shelter before receiving living assistance from the U.S. government. The assistance was meager. Her living situations weren't the best. At one point, she suffered under the grip of black mold in a studio apartment. The mold ravaged her daughter's sinuses and ears so much that she had to undergo surgery to have tubes placed in her ear canals. Meanwhile, Land's relationship with her daughter's father caused additional stress due to the constant threat of his erratic behavior and need for control over their daughter.
One aspect of Land's retelling of her experience as a poor, single mother was the way in which health professionals often blamed her for her daughter's poor health. The nurses talked to her as if she intentionally lived in a moldy apartment, going so far as to tell her that she needed to move. A doctor who she took her daughter to see for an ear infection got irate with her after Land questioned the drops he'd recommended for treatment, telling her "You're the mother, take care of it!" before storming out of the room leaving her stunned and alone.
These situations and interactions she found herself in gave me the feeling of being invisible. Because she was poor and couldn't afford a different type of clinic she was forced to take part in these destructive and combative interactions with health professionals.
Atop of all of this, Land was a maid for a cleaning company working minimum wage. She drove to and from people's houses and cleaned them top to bottom. This was hard, physical, unrewarding work. Some houses were given monikers to signify certain details about its inhabitants. "The Sad House" belonged to a man who'd lost his son and wife and who appeared to be dealing with bad health issues and simply waiting to die. The sadness of the house weighed on Land every time she visited. "The Chef's House" had a huge kitchen and oven that she was reminded had cost more than the car she drove. "The Porn House" was, you guessed it, a house in which one bedroom contained a porn stash, lube, and "used" socks Land was forced to clean at every visit.
Land's writing is gripping as she describes the physical and emotional labor involved in balancing the facts of her life with cleaning the houses of people who do not know or care that she exists, just that she does a good job. I shared in her desperation and hopelessness as I imagined myself in her position with no clear end in sight.
Yet, we know before we begin reading her story that she did make it out of poverty. She managed to apply for scholarships and pursue mentorships and attend the University of Minnesota. She remained focused on the dream she had when she was in her early twenties, although it was not without significant doubt or setbacks. She held her dream of being a writer close to her heart and hoped like hell it would all work out somehow. And it did.
I have seen some arguments about whether her being a white woman helped her to eventually make her way out of a life of poverty. That for every poor, white, single mother who receives an acceptance letter to college or a scholarship, there are many more poor brown and black women whose stories of poverty and domestic violence will never be told. The situations of some of these women will never change. But, should we hold this against Land? Should her achievements be written off because she is white? Does her being white make being poor not as bad as it would be for someone who was non-white? Are there different types of poor? One would argue there is and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong. However, I think if we want to hear stories from marginalized peoples, that includes poor, white women, then we should let them speak.
Maid is an important story of poverty, invisibility, domestic work, and single parenthood. I highly recommend the audiobook.
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